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'Teachable moment' sparks initiatives in diversity education

An unfortunate racially charged incident this past spring has sparked new initiatives in diversity education.

"We would be remiss if we did not take steps to take advantage of this opportunity to bring students together," said Renee Alexander, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs. Student leaders, including the presidents of the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, are already enthusiastically involved, she said.

On Slope Day, May 6, a guest at the Sigma Pi fraternity house threw bottles, cans and epithets at a group of black students walking by. Although the perpetrator, a visitor from Florida, was not a member of the Sigma Pi house nor a Cornell student, fraternity members "felt very ashamed of this event and that it doesn't represent them," Alexander said. "They're really a pretty diverse group." Sigma Pi will be an important participant in new outreach programs, she said.

On a recommendation of the Fraternity and Sorority Review Board, the Sigma Pi Fraternity will be placed on provisional recognition by the university for the 2012-13 academic year. Details of the board's findings are reported in a statement by Kent Hubbell, dean of students.

The new diversity education programs will be run from the Center for Intercultural Dialogue at 626 Thurston Ave., an umbrella for minority-focused organizations including the Asian Asian-American Center, the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Resource Center, Student Development Diversity Initiatives and ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American Programming Board). Independent student organizations such as Black Students United and STUC (Students to Unite Cornell -- an alliance of white, Asian, African-American, Native American, Greek, Jewish, gay and straight student leaders) are also supported through the center.

The goal is to reach out to fraternities, sororities and other living units and create conversations about the diverse world around them. Most white students, Alexander noted, come from mostly or totally white high schools and communities and have not experienced diversity in the ways that minority students have. "We must bring these students together with those who have different backgrounds and experiences," Alexander said. If just the minority students get together and talk, "We're preaching to the choir," she said.

"One of the best reasons to come to Cornell is to study and socialize with the enormous variety of students we have here," said Hubbell. "One of our challenges is to encourage students to take advantage of these opportunities."

Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for fraternities, sororities and independent living, will hire a new assistant dean of students to act as adviser to the Multicultural Greek Letter Council, which represents culturally based fraternities and sororities whose members are primarily from underrepresented populations, with additional responsibility to support the new educational programs, reporting both to Apgar and Alexander.

"One-third of the student population belongs to fraternities and sororities. Our relationship to these organizations provides an opportunity for conversations about diversity and inclusion," Apgar said. "We might talk about what organizations do, without even realizing it, that might deter students from joining, and what they can do to create a more welcoming, inclusive atmosphere."

The university will launch a new three-credit course, Intergroup Dialogue (Educ. 2610), in which students will meet in small sections each made up of culturally mixed groups. "We're hoping some students will come out of it so inspired that they'll sign up again to meet different groups," Alexander said.

"These students are committed, but we know that we have more work to do," she added. "We were moving positively in the right direction, and somebody comes along and hits the reset button. But out of an unfortunate incident comes an opportunity to work toward broad inclusion."

That often-repeated word "inclusion" is about feeling that you belong, Alexander explained. "Being invited to the dance is engagement; having someone ask you to dance is inclusion," she said. "Everyone should feel at home at Cornell."


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Claudia Wheatley